Build a 21st Century Culture and Workforce

Innovative Acquisitions and Procurement

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"Innovations arise when people are given a problem to solve instead of being told to implement a known solution."

Purpose and Outcomes

Purpose: Innovative acquisitions and procurement methods help the government get the most value of its purchasing and outcomes while spending less on contracting processes.

Acquisitions (often described as procurement) is the process by which the U.S. federal government acquires goods, services, and property through appropriated (set aside by Congress) funds. This is one of the key tools the federal government has to get things done. Acquisitions implies the strategy behind getting a product , while "procurement" is used to define the technical process of getting a needed service or product.

In FY 2016 the US federal government spent $462 billion on contracts, with more than $86 billion in federal information technology (IT), making it the largest buyer in the world. Nearly $64.5 billion goes to maintain current systems rather than improve them.

The federal government spends a lot of money on IT purchases, but doesn't always receive the full value's worth of that money. In 1974, the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) codified federal acquisitions. The FAR is nearly 1,500 pages and was created before modern technology.

Federal IT acquisitions have had difficulties because:

  • The skills gap because few people in the workforce understand both IT and procurement.
  • The status quo approach of large, multiyear, waterfall-based, extended requirement gathering, year-long competitions moves slower than technology.
  • Companies that have creative solutions to many of government's tech problems find it challenging to do business with the government due to high barriers to entry, lack of customer-facing tools, complex acquisition processes, and not understanding how to identify opportunities.

Therefore, the acquisitions and procurement community has had to rethink and reframe the practice to meet user needs. Innovative acquisitions comprise a variety of procurement approaches for both digital services and physical products that reduce risk while delivering required outcomes. These approaches:

  • improve the likelihood of on-time or early delivery of contracts,
  • increase end user satisfaction
  • can reduce the total cost of ownership.

The recent fresh perspectives and focus on IT acquisitions or procurement. Because that's the biggest need, but they apply to other fields as well.


Common features of the innovative acquisition methods profiled here include early and frequent collaboration between acquisition teams and end-users, and the use of agile, iterative, and modular implementation methods. (see "Human Centered Design", "Lean" and "Agile" sections)

Many innovative contracting models can reduce transaction costs and increase access to innovative contractors while still operating within the limits of existing law and regulation.

Here are some new ways of thinking in acquisitions:

Traditional Thinking New Thinking
If it's not explicitly allowed, it's prohibited. If it's not explicitly prohibited, it's allowed.
Creating a statement of work with requirements (prescriptive rather than descriptive) Offering a statement of objectives with overall purpose/direction (descriptive rather than prescriptive)
Acquisitions professionals manage and lead the process Acquisitions professionals form part of the team, all of whom are needed to successfully acquire modern products and services
Large, monolithic contracts Modular contracting and agile delivery
Too-large Request for Proposals (RFPs) Just-right RFPs that are short and to the point
"Push" methods where products and services are outlined in detail; funded whether or not the final product meets agency needs "Demand pull" methods depend upon user needs to stimulate non-traditional methods and companies to participate; funded when the needs are met

With fewer resources, agencies must use procurement practices that ensure federal agencies pay only for successful results, not just best efforts. Existing regulations and authorities permit new and more effective acquisition models and processes, currently being tested by and used at many agencies. Many proven practices, some listed in this Toolkit like human-centered design and agile software development, help to close the gap.

As new approaches become available, each agency can consider how to encourage the workforce to test and adopt new and better ways of doing business.

Most agencies have Acquisition Innovation Advocates and acquisition labs or similar mechanisms, which were announced in 2016 by the Office of Management and Budget Office of Federal Procurement Policy Memo. With the dedicated support of this advocate or lab, agencies can reframe problems and produce better results.


Modern Contracting Vehicles

18F Agile Delivery Services Blanket Purchase Agreement (BPA)

In keeping with its mission to transform the way the federal government builds and buys digital services, 18F set out to find a new way of procuring digital services at the speed of agile development cycles. That means ideally less than four weeks from solicitation to contract kickoff, and from there no more than three months to deliver a working product.

18F partnered with the General Service Administration (GSA) Office of Information Technology Category to establish a blanket purchase agreement (BPA) featuring vendors specializing in agile delivery services (e.g., user-centered design, agile software development, DevOps). The Agile Delivery Services BPA (Agile BPA) attempts to align acquisition practices with agile delivery practices.

The Agile BPA is different from most other traditional IT services contract vehicles. It uses novel ways to select vendors: the most important thing for them is their ability to ship high-quality working software. They issue task orders — consistent with the TechFAR — that feature shorter time-frames, smaller dollar amounts, and user-centered design principles.

Push versus Demand Pull Methods

Traditional complex procurement processes discourage small business and non-government innovators like startup companies from participating. This process, called the "push" method, outlines the exact needs up front and all acquisitions/procurements are treated roughly the same despite their demand and based on forecasts that are almost always wrong (Source: The Standish Group, "Chaos Report 2015," 2015). Procurements with this method is usually set aside for traditional government contractors, and provides funds upfront whether or not the final product meets the agency's needs.

Opposite is the "demand pull" method, which uses actual real-time customer demand to generate the need for the product and its direction. This method stimulates innovation and allows smaller businesses and inexperienced government contractors to participate. Demand pull mechanisms offer agencies the ability to discover, prove, and scale new solutions and more effective outcomes.

There are two distinct categories of demand pull methods: pay for performance and purchase commitments, described below:

Category Demand Pull Mechanism What It Does
Pay for Performance Advance market commitments Creates new markets and commits to long-term pricing for purchases
Motivating or "Incentive"prizes Gets citizens involved in solving problems  
Competitive milestone-based payments Attracts new solutions to well-defined, multi-component problems  
Micro-purchase authority Uses a government purchase card to make small awards for coding challenges  
Purchase Commitments Challenge-based acquisitions Breaks the entry barrier for startups and young organizations
Non-binding purchase agreements Collaborates with industry and encourage new solutions, without firmly committing to them  
Rapid technology prototyping Tries out new technologies rapidly and inexpensively  
Staged contracts Solicits proposals and assesses them quickly  

Pay for Performance

Advanced Market Commitment (AMC)

The Pneumococcal AMC The Gates Foundation and governments of Italy, The United Kingdom, Canada, Russia, and Norway promised to purchase vaccines on a per-unit basis for a limited amount of time. In return for that promise and financial support, companies developed a pneumococcal vaccine and manufacturers provide it at a reasonable cost to citizens in developing countries. In 2015 the target was 1 year ahead of schedule, and by 2016 an estimated 109 million children had been immunized.

Incentive Prizes

New York City Big Apps Challenge In 2012, NYC launched the Big Apps Challenge, which sought innovative software applications that made municipal data more accessible to city residents. Designers tapped into the developer community to access external expertise. They considered many challenges to help net the $50,000 purse. Designers broke the challenge into 10 topics (for example, green, health and safety, and mobility) and posted clear requirements for each category. They included commercial benefits, inviting investors such as BMW to help judge the challenge. Finally, New York City included an "Investor's Choice Winner" and allowed the grand prizewinner to demo the app at the New York Tech Meetup. The Big Apps Challenge spurred the development of 96 apps using municipal data in new and innovative ways.

The Ansari X Prize Until October 4, 2004, space flight was the exclusive purview of government. The possibility of space tourism was considered too dangerous and too expensive for the general public, and space exploration for the private sector was neither possible nor affordable. The Ansari XPRIZE aided investment in a brand new industry. Over the course of the competition, 26 teams invested more than $100 million for research and development in suborbital space flight.

In 2004 the Ansari Foundation awarded a $10 million prize to Scaled Composites' Tier One Project for developing a reliable, reusable manned spacecraft. Among other participants, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic continue to develop private space travel (2018 is the projected date for first trips) and payload delivery. Breakthroughs made as a result of this successful competition led to a private space industry worth more than $2 billion today.

Purchase Commitments

Challenge-Based Acquisition

Department of Defense (DOD) Robotic Rodeo

The key difference between challenge-based acquisition and a traditional performance-based acquisition is the requirement to demonstrate product performance in real-world conditions before an agency commits resources for full production. Payment is made only after a successful solution is shown.

Twenty-six companies participated in a two-week robotics competition in 2012 held by the DOD at Fort Benning. Four different events tested innovative technical solutions for surveillance and inspection of Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) in real-world conditions. A follow-up competition in 2014 choose those who would participate in the next phase of the $49.5 million contract.

Micro-Purchase Award

18F Micro-Purchase Agreement Experiment

An 18F Micro-purchase is an experiment in federal acquisition, which makes it easier for individuals and businesses, or vendors, to use their technical expertise toward building the open source software that powers federal agencies — and vice versa.

Conceptually, the platform is simple: 18F Micro-purchase functions as a reverse auction house. Federal agencies work with 18F to create auctions that start at $3,500 or less (this is the ceiling of the federal government's micro-purchase authority, the authority from which we draw our name).

Vendors evaluate auctions, review any source code associated with that auction, and place their bids. At the end of each auction, winners deliver their work in accordance with policy and 18F pays.

Anyone can participate in this work. Vendors need only have GitHub and System for Award Management ( accounts to sign up and place a bid. If you work in government and are interested in running auctions for an open-source project, read the getting started guide. Members at 18F are available to scope features, develop an auction strategy, and run your auctions. Although many auctions ask for code, this process can be applied to any kind of contribution to an open source project, including design, content, etc. This experiment will also soon be extended to auctions with starting prices of $25,000 or less.

Non-Binding Purchase Agreement

The Department of Energy (DOE) Purchase Challenge

The DOE created a coalition of more than 200 major commercial building partners and issued a challenge to U.S. manufacturers: "If you can build wireless sub-meters that cost less than $100 apiece and enable us to identify opportunities to save money by saving energy, we will buy them."

At least 18 manufacturers have responded, and DOE's private-sector partners have signed letters of intent to purchase the wireless sub-meters since DOE issued the challenge in 2013. U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz described this activity as "a perfect example of how government can team up with industry to identify a problem and promote the innovation needed to solve it."

Rapid Technology Prototyping

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Fast Track Robotics

The recent explosion in robotics comes from small businesses and individuals in maker and hacker spaces and incubators of low-cost innovation and collaboration. DARPA partnered with Virginia-based hacker space TechShop to streamline the contracting process to address non-traditional performers' needs while still meeting all requirements under the FAR. DARPA supported the rapid development of new robotics capabilities designed to respond to, and even anticipate, quickly evolving warfighter needs. New robotics projects have an average cost of $150,000 and require only simple contracts lasting 6-12 months. The contracting process itself, from the time a proposal is submitted (via a website) to when a contract is signed, took less than a month.

Actions and Considerations

According to The Standish Group, small IT projects have more than a 70% chance of success while a large project has virtually no chance of coming in on time, on budget, and within scope. For this reason and for others discussed in this overview, the federal government needs to rethink and reshape how it builds and buys products and services.

Below are some known pitfalls identified during the Digital Acquisitions Accelerator in 2016. These are all things that haven't worked well for us when it comes down to digital acquisitions. Avoid them–or at least use them carefully.

Avoiding these common pitfalls is the first steps in transforming acquisitions at your agency.

Pitfall #1: Large, monolithic contracts

These often do not work well for digital products and services. The Standish Group points out that you're only giving yourself a six percent chance of success when you start these types of projects. Also, technology moves fast, and if you want your agency to be able to respond quickly in an ever-changing landscape, you'll need to avoid these.

Pitfall #2: Writing too-large RFPs

In 1907, the U.S. Army wanted to acquire an airplane. Airplanes were so cutting edge at the time that they weren't even called airplanes; they were called "heavier than air flying machines." Guess how many pages the solicitation was for this? 50? 20? No, 2 pages!

You don't need 100-page RFPs to acquire the best digital solutions for your agency. Often, all this does is encourage some of your better potential vendors to not respond. These long RFPs are typically driven by the old requirements-gathering mindset combined with bloated legalese, focusing on oversight and liability rather than product quality and project success.

These long RFPs take too much time for your agency to write, too much time from vendors to respond to, and discourage good vendors from bidding. There are very few good outcomes.

Instead, work internally to develop a sound problem statement and product vision. Think in terms of objectives and user stories. Indeed, modern agile development methods pay careful attention to alternative ways of specifying and achieving desired outcomes for product development.

Pitfall #3: Only having acquisitions people involved in the acquisitions process

Acquisitions is more than just buying, and it's important to bring key expertise, like policy, law, engineering, design, and security, to the table early in the acquisitions process to ensure a project's success. Leveraging a cross-functional team's expertise will help ensure your agency is solving your users' problems.

Pitfall #4: Not being open to change

The world moves fast, and technology moves even faster. You must be willing to adapt, change direction, and try new things to get the best digital products and services. The goal is to get better outcomes, not just contracts. No matter what your experience has been until now, you can learn and apply new techniques to make acquisitions more effective, more efficient, and hopefully more joyful.

Being open to change means shifting the focus from a "no, we can't" to a "how might we" context. It allows you to solve the problems as they arrive based on any given context, known or unknown.

Pitfall #5: Forgetting that people, not contracts, manage projects

Often, a contracting officer will work really hard to be sure that every possible clause that may or may not be needed is included within the contract. This is fine, but it often overlooks the reality that over the life of the contract, new ideas will be formed and business strategy may shift.

So it's important to have someone from your agency working hand in hand with the vendor to help make rapid decisions that still align with organizational goals. Relying too heavily on contract clauses to solve every problem that may arise over the period of performance doesn't work. You'll need to assign a resource to be a product owner who works with the vendor until the period of performance is complete.

These steps will help you to rethink and reshape how you build and buy products and services:

  1. Talk to your agency's advocate for innovative acquisition. They are there to help you
  2. Use "demand pull" mechanisms
  3. Think big, and act small
    • Break large projects into small, discrete components with clearly defined objectives
    • Simplify the contract or use a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to get started
    • Establish constraints on time, money, complexity, and size
    • Add a "kill switch" so contract ends when objectives cannot be met
  4. Track results against metrics established by Office of Management and Budget (OMB)
  5. Share results in the Innovation Hallway of GSA's Acquisition Gateway
  6. Participate in the Acquisition Innovation Advocates Council that meets regularly with OMB and 18F Consulting to broaden awareness and cross-agency collaboration


Innovative contracting approaches are allowed under existing law. New regulations are not needed to deploy any of these authorities:

  • Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR)
    • Provides a variety of pathways that allow agencies to reshape existing processes to reduce transaction costs while still operating within the confines of existing law and regulation.
  • Other Transactions Authority (OTA)
    • Funding mechanisms that target non-traditional sources and allow a high degree of flexibility in how the agreement is awarded.
  • American Innovation and Competitiveness Act 2016
    • Expands the use of challenges and gives the authority for any federal government agency to work cooperatively with and pool funds from multiple government agencies and profit or nonprofit private sector entity, state, tribal, local, or foreign government agencies and higher education institutions.
  • America Competes Reauthorization Act of 2010
    • Established authorities for all federal agencies to offer incentive prizes and run challenge competitions "to stimulate innovation that has the potential to advance the mission of the respective agency."

Additional Resources

Government Services Administration (GSA): Acquisition.Gov and Acquisition Gateway

Office of Management and Budget's Office of Federal Procurement Policy's Memo establishing Acquisition Innovation Labsand an Acquisitions Innovation Advocate Council

18F and the Presidential Innovation Fellows

U.S. Digital Services

Further reading:

Hiring a Chief Innovation Officer

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Hiring a Chief Innovation Officer

“[Chief Innovation Officers] look across the board and figure out how to do things better, faster, and tie those activities into the overall management structure.” -Bryan Sivak, former Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at Health and Human Services (HHS)

(quoted in J. Stinson, “Chief Innovation Officers: Do They Deliver?” Stateline, February 6, 2015,

Purpose & Outcomes

Purpose: Federal agencies can substantially benefit from having a Chief Innovation Officer (CINO) to serve as a catalyst for change to confront emerging challenges or improve the efficiency of decades-old service delivery processes.

A CINO serves as a beacon for innovation, working to harness, foster, execute, and manage innovative ideas. CINOs are force multipliers: these innovators teach and enable others, and spotlight staff doing or wanting to do innovative work. The role is also inherently flexible and sometimes includes ambiguous boundaries. A CINO’s portfolio may be defined around an agency’s priority needs.

In broad terms, CINOs:

  • Connect people and break down silos to tap into employee ideas in innovative ways;
  • Reframe problems in order to change thinking patterns;
  • Celebrate and encourage employee engagement in innovative work within an agency;
  • Lead agency-wide initiatives to change core underlying processes, improve performance, and increase efficiency; and
  • “De-risk” innovation, guiding employees through the transition between old and new processes.”

Appointing a CINO can result in persistent, high-value benefits for agency leadership because the CINO’s top priority is to focus on innovation and relentlessly drive it forward. These efforts can amplify any senior leadership’s capacity for attaining an agency’s mission. In times of tight budgets, CINOs act as change agents to transform an agency’s operations.


  • Bryan Sivak launched several new programs that sit within HHS IDEA Lab including the HHS Ignite Accelerator and the Entrepreneur-in-Residence program, which brings external talent into HHS for a tour-of-duty.
  • For Chris Gerdes, just getting staff talking about and appreciating new approaches has been a significant step in shifting the Department of Transportation (DOT) culture – and approaches that may seem trivial can have big impacts. For example, Gerdes began carving out a few minutes in the senior leaders’ weekly agency meeting to spotlight staff doing innovative work. When Monday morning meetings began acknowledging and celebrating that new approaches were important and were succeeding, he received very positive feedback (Source: Interview with Chris Gerdes by Policy Design Lab, July 1, 2016).
  • Having a separate innovation team like the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Global Development Lab generates critical mass, bringing together best practices, and helping to evangelize innovation across the organization. “It’s much harder,” former CINO Ann Mei Chang observed, “When people are trying to work in isolation to push the boulder up a hill rather than having a team and space to innovate together.” (Source: In-person interview, July 7, 2016).
  • Matthew Dunne helped guide the The Quiet Clean Energy Innovation Revolution at the Department of Energy. He found Senior Executive Service (SES) employees support vital when they authorize the employees they manage to invest time in innovative activities, such as participation in communities of practice (CoP) (Source: Phone interview, July 18, 2016).


When establishing a CINO position, federal government agencies may wish to consider various ways to define the position’s role and methods to identify and source candidates. CINOs are not cookie-cutter positions. They can play a combination of multiple roles within their agencies, including that of teacher, manager, advocate, and evaluator.

(1) Teacher: A CINO’s role includes weaving innovation into an organization’s cultural fabric. CINOs provide individuals in their organization the skillsets necessary to foster and manage innovation on a small scale. (2) Manager: CINOs must oversee and support the execution of creative initiatives, which usually involves supervising the steps taken as an idea is implemented as well as providing resources to ensure that the innovation is successful. (3) Advocate: CINOs can help bolster innovation by acting as a vocal proponent for creative ideas and innovators who might otherwise become discouraged by negative reaction from superiors. (4) Evaluator: CINOs are visionaries who help evaluate new ideas and determine their feasibility and potential impact.

Defining the CINO’s role is critical. Once it is defined, an agency can better determine the job description, and which characteristics are most important in hiring candidates. Several points that agencies may wish to consider when defining the CINO role include:

  • Clarify vision. Start out by asking yourself, why have you decided to hire someone for this role? What are the goals you are trying to achieve? Are you willing to commit to making this a fundamentally important role in your agency? Taking the time to articulate these answers is an essential clarification exercise. If appointments are just a “checkbox” decision without a thoughtful direction in mind, then the outcomes are likely to be ineffective.
  • Establish clear goals. At the outset, clearly scope the CINO role, its expectations, and the measurements of success. Consider working collaboratively with your incoming CINO to fully articulate their job description.
  • Remain flexible. An inherent amount of flexibility is essential. Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg stated in What It Really Means to be an Innovation Officer, “By now, it is widely recognized that if you are developing a new idea, you have to stay flexible in the beginning and be ready to deviate from the original plan. What fewer people realize is that this is equally true when you establish innovation units. Marry yourself too firmly to a specific setup, model, or metric at the outset, and trouble will soon ensue.” (Source: Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, “What it Really Means to be a Chief Innovation Officer,” Harvard Business Review, December 5, 2014). In a spirit of continuous learning, agency leadership may consider how to re-visit and re-evaluate the job responsibilities assigned to the CINO. Bryan Sivak adds, “Innovation itself should be an iterative process – so why shouldn’t the job as well?” (Email correspondence, November 6, 2016)

A sample CINO Job Description is provided by Chris Gerdes (Email correspondence, November 2, 2016): The CINO shall serve as the chief facilitator of innovation, looking across and outside of the department for opportunities and assisting senior leadership in obtaining the tools and connections necessary to successfully move those opportunities forward. The CINO will assist in training and educating employees on how to support innovation and create processes that encourage employees to turn their ideas into a prototype that may be tested and evaluated for broader adoption. He shall serve as a liaison between bottom-up innovation from those closest to the challenges and top-down innovation at the strategic level. Specific duties include:

  • Assisting [the department] in establishing a culture of innovation through the development and implementation of tools, training and processes
  • Identifying and, with the support of the secretary, deputy secretary and [other relevant top senior leadership], removing barriers to innovation across the department while creating mechanisms for department staff to prototype and develop their ideas; and
  • Identifying potential innovation that could aid the department’s mission and mobilize resources of the federal government to support its development.

In all cases, agencies must have a clear understanding of a CINO’s mission, role, and authority within an agency, in order to attract the most qualified candidates and to enable them to succeed. Sometimes it may be more appropriate to promote operational innovation by designating an innovation “home” in key functional roles such as human resources (HR), legal, and acquisition.

In other contexts where the top priorities involve technology integration and deployment, a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) may also be a suitable leadership home for an innovation portfolio. Some agencies designate their Chief Information Officer (CIO) as the lead for identifying and implementing innovative activities.

Actions and Considerations

The choice of an appropriate avenue for hiring a CINO depends on agency-specific hiring flexibilities. Agencies may consider bringing in CINOs as either a temporary or permanent hire. Federal employees may wish to consult with their agencies’ human resources office for agency-specific guidance.

  • Temporary hires are those brought in for specific duties and responsibilities on short-term detail assignments. A temporary detail can last from 60 days to multiple years. Another avenue to bring in CINOs and CTOs temporarily has been the Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA), which allows personnel to be recruited to serve in a temporary position from other federal agencies, state and local governments, colleges and universities, Indian tribal governments, federally funded research and development centers (e.g., DOE’s national laboratories), and other eligible organizations (Title 5 CFR Part 334—Temporary Assignments Under the IPA).
  • Permanent hires can be brought in through Special Appointing Authorities. For instance, some agencies have authorities that enable direct hiring of a limited number of scientific, engineering, professional, or administrative personnel without many of the usual requirements and restrictions that can belabor the hiring process. Such authorities can enable agencies to recruit and hire more quickly than possible through typical government means. Permanent hire CINOs could also be sourced from the Senior Executive Service or Candidate Development Programs. In addition, agencies could post a job announcement on

An agency’s implementation of the CINO position can include several mechanisms to help the CINO quickly understand the agency’s challenges and context, thereby shortening the learning curve. Below are some lessons learned from implementing CINOS roles and ways agency leadership facilitated their success.

  • Role Definition Connected to the Mission: In creating a CINO role, senior leaders have connected the position, its responsibilities, and authority to execute on ideas with the context of the priorities related to accomplishing the agency’s mission.
  • CINOs Embedded at the Top: The flexibility inherent to creating a CINO position allows agencies to tailor the position to specific contexts. However, CINOs themselves emphasize the importance of embedding the position at the top of the organizational for the person to be effective.
  • Institutionalizing Innovation: Successfully building a culture of innovation within a department or agency remains one of the main challenges for CINOs.The position of CINO cannot be created and then abandoned to succeed on its own; a lesson learned from past CINOs is that support is needed from the top of the organization to help institutionalize innovation as a process and practice.
  • Guidance Within and External to the Agency: Pairing the CINO with an internal agency “buddy” may be particularly helpful if bringing in a non-federal candidate to lead the agency’s innovation portfolio. The “buddy” can be another senior leader, such as a member of the Senior Executive Service, who helps the CINO navigate the learning curve of understanding inefficiencies and opportunities to arrive at solutions within the agency.

Supporting Policies

Pay Authorities

Examples of authorities designed to increase pay in certain circumstances include:

  • Critical Position Pay Authority (CPPA)—governed by 5 U.S.C. Section 5377 and 5 CFR Part 535—allows federal agencies to the ability to fix the pay of exceptionally well-qualified individuals in critical positions at a rate higher than would be otherwise payable. (, “Pay & Leave: Pay Administration,” Fact Sheet: Critical Position Pay, 2017, A 2014 report by the IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute found that the CPPA was an underutilized flexibility. (IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute, History of the Critical Position Pay Authority and Options to Support Its Use, IDA Document D-5159, March 2014,
  • Scientific and Professional (ST) positions—(governed by 5 U.S.C. Section 3014 and 5 CFR Part 534 Subpart E—allow federal agencies to set and adjust the pay of employees under a pay-for-performance system. (, “Senior Executive Service: Scientific & Senior Level Positions,” Senior Level (SL) Positions, 2017,

Term Appointments

Examples of hiring authorities with term-limited appointments include:

  • Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) Mobility Program—governed by 5 U.S.C. Sections 3371 through 3375 and 5 CFR Part 334—allows federal agencies to temporarily hire skills personnel from state and local governments, institutions of higher education, Indian tribal governments, and other eligible organizations. (, “Hiring Information: Intergovernment Personnel Act,” Overview, 2017, IPA is a powerful but commonly misunderstood policy. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) encourages agencies to re-think the following IPA myths and misconceptions.
  • Senior Executive Service (SES) authority—governed by 42 U.S.C. Section 1863(g) and 5 U.S.C. Sections 3131 through 3152—allows federal agencies to appoint individuals into positions for up to 3 years with the ability to non-competitively convert the position into a permanent position.

Further information on federal authorities related to term appointments can be found in a 2014 report by the IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute, Federal Term Appointment Hiring Authorities for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Personnel, IDA Document D-5148, April 2014, Table 1, p. 10,

Expedited Hiring Authorities

Examples of authorities to expedite hiring include:

  • Direct hire authority—governed by 5 U.S.C. Section 3304 and 5 CFR Part 337, Subpart B—allows federal agencies to appoint candidates into positions without regard to 5 U.S.C Section 3309 through 3318. (, “Hiring Information: Direct Hire Authority,” Governmentwide Authority, 2017, Government-wide direct-hire authorities include those for information technology management and acquisition positions, among others.
  • Veterans excepted service authority—governed by Schedule A, 5 CFR Part 213.3102(u)—allows federal agencies to non-competitively hire disabled persons. (, “Disability Employment: Hiring,” Schedule A Hiring Authority, 2017,

Additional Resources

Communities of Practice

Federal agencies interested in participating in communities of practice may wish to learn more about or participate in the following groups:

  • Chief Innovation Officers Summit is an annual gathering of multi-sector leaders (federal and non-federal) who share methods for developing new ideas and implementation tools.
  • Partnership for Public Service Leadership Training provides (federal and non-federal) leadership development programs, including training, courses, and groups focused on building leadership in public service.
  • Office of Personnel Management Center for Leadership Development provides opportunities to connect with other federal leaders, to build capacity for leadership, and to offer professional development at various federal levels (e.g., SES, supervisor, or manager).

Select CINOs (or Similar Roles) at Federal Agencies

Federal agencies interested in a dialogue about the CINO role and how a CINO can help achieve agency priorities can contact:

  • Ann Mei Chang, Agency: U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Role: CINO, Email:
  • Matthew Dunne, Agency: former U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable, Energy, Role: former Chief Operations and Strategic Innovation Officer, Email:

Further Reading

Creating a Culture of Innovation

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"Everyday Americans deserve a way of thinking that empowers rather than divides, that confronts challenges rather than creating them, that solicits all types of expertise rather than espousing tired approaches."

-Aneesh Chopra, former U.S. Chief Technology Officer

Purpose and Outcomes

Purpose: Innovation in the federal government involves encouraging a problem-solving mindset in your organization and empowering your employees to use modern tools and experiment with new approaches to achieve greater mission impact.

Motivated innovators across federal agencies have pioneered approaches that deliver better results at lower cost for the U.S. public. However, only 31 percent of federal employees feel their agency rewards creativity and innovation according to the Office of Personnel and Management (OPM) 2017 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. This is a decrease of 6 percent from the 2015 survey results.

Government innovators need support at all agency levels to effectively introduce, test, and scale promising programs and solve challenging problems. An innovative culture's ultimate goal is to learn and share the skills and capabilities that can help us do our work more effectively.


  • Digital IT Acquisition Professional (DITAP) Training from Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) and U.S. Digital Service (USDS). Using human-centered design (HCD) principles and agile methods for software development are very different from traditional waterfall methods for development. The OFPP and USDS created DITAP to train contracting professionals on how to develop appropriate acquisition strategies for procuring digital supplies and services.
  • Health and Human Services (HHS) IDEA Lab Innovates Awards identified and celebrated employee-led innovation at HHS from 2010 to 2015. HHS employees nominated and voted on the top innovations. The winning innovators were personally recognized by HHS leadership at an annual awards ceremony and received media recognition and cash prizes for their work.
  • The HHS Ignite Accelerator is an internal innovation startup program for HHS staff. Started in July 2013, the program allows employees to develop bold ideas to improve how their program, office, or agency works, and to infuse entrepreneurial approaches into their work. Selected teams receive design thinking and lean start-up training during a three-day boot camp, followed by coaching and technical guidance over three months to help teams define and test creative ideas in meaningful ways.
  • Veterans' Affairs (VA) Spark-Seed-Spread Innovation Funding Program supplies VA employees with supportive pathways to design and deploy thoughtful solutions to tough challenges. It provides training opportunities for VA employees to learn innovation-related skills like human centered-design (HCD), access to three different types of funding grants, and mentorship support to develop and test innovation projects.


Tactical strategies are required to effectively encourage adoption, adaptation, and deployment of innovation within an agency. Innovators at all levels of government use various approaches:

Support change seekers institutionally

  • Become or ally yourself with high-level champion and advocates
  • Use policy guidance to empower
  • Create different types of infrastructure that make new approaches easy
  • Link the broader performance management agenda with specific innovative tools

Create enabling environments

  • Create new organizations, such as centers of excellence and accelerators
  • Charter an innovation council to build capacity and consensus of broader adoption of particular approaches
  • Use accelerators to pilot new ideas

Have incentives and reward experimentation

  • Formally recognize innovators through awards and acknowledgement
  • Create incentives for adoption of innovation
  • Link broad goals to individual performance plans

Foster a culture of learning

  • Create high quality, updated, online resources that help federal employees
  • Use experiential learning in professional development and training
  • Foster communities of practice

Actions and Considerations

Use these key tactics when trying to encourage a new idea or process improvement:

  • Start small, and let success build on itself. Start with well-documented early wins (i.e. evidence, rather than simply inspiration, provided by small piloted successes.)
  • Have multiple approaches to engage community: Leaders can use a public platform to spotlight an issue, but have a concurrent bottom-up (or out) strategy.
  • Establish accountability: Make people commit to doing things in front of the highest levels of leadership.
  • Look for allies: Take a team approach.
  • Build community and networks: Build communities of practice (CoP) in your own agency and work up to interagency CoPs.


Additional Resources

Launching an Innovation Lab

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"Primarily it's creating the time and the space to be able to do it. That's minimal resources, but it's giving people the time and space to look at a problem differently, think about what potential solutions are, do a bit of research and then test and try out the new ideas to see if they work. Initial successes are also very helpful as success builds on itself."


Purpose and Outcomes

Purpose: Innovation labs create space for agency staff and key external stakeholders to imagine, test, and scale new ways to address their most difficult challenges.

The labs are designed to encourage more rapid exploration, embracing periodic failure as an integral part of any learning process. If something doesn't work right the first time, you need to try again and do it differently the next time.

Innovation labs have surfaced across the federal government in recent years. They bring together savvy problem solvers to increase innovation capacity within their agency.

Benefits of federal innovation labs include:

  1. Creating solutions to solve specific challenges Labs focus teams on solving high-priority problems and developing usable and scalable solutions. Agency staff often work with employees across government and citizens alike to take part in co-creating innovations.
  2. Engaging citizens, non-profits, and businesses to find new ideas Labs open up their agencies to new ideas sourced from anywhere. By pairing open innovation approaches like crowdsourcing or challenges with robust engagement strategies, labs become a conduit for new ideas and new solutions to be brought in from the outside.
  3. Transforming government processes, skills, and culture Labs transform an agency by acting as a centralized hub for innovation. Labs build their agency's internal capacity to adopt and deploy new approaches by providing how-to blueprints, coaching, and training.
  4. Achieving wider policy and systems change Labs also look beyond specific projects and challenges to help shift the policy context in their agency. Lab staff can help encourage systemic change.


Several agencies have developed their internal innovation capacity through innovation lab models including:


Before creating an innovation lab, carefully evaluate whether existing offices or programs can help realize their mission more effectively. The agency's mission ultimately affects every aspect and decision from human resources and budget to partnerships and communications. Decide whether an agency's mission and its structure will support an innovation lab.

Actions and Considerations

Consider the following questions when establishing and structuring their own innovation labs.

How strong is your agency's commitment to establish and support an innovation lab?

The agency must provide a minimum commitment of support to meet the lab's goals. In addition to financial resources, agency leaders should also consider technological and human capital needs, among many others. Simply assigning more responsibilities to a current team member may not be enough to accomplish the lab's goals. Labs may be staffed by dedicated teams or by part-time volunteers from across the agency. Innovative hiring mechanisms such as hiring part-time employees, contractors, fellows, or interns can be used to supplement traditional hiring or full-time employees.

Your lab should develop partnerships with the following offices within your agency as early as possible in order to ensure effective support:

  • Office of the General Counsel (OGC)
  • Office of the Chief Financial Officer (OCFO)
  • Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer (OCHCO)
  • Office of Communications and Outreach (OCO)
  • Office of Management
  • Office of the Secretary/Administrator

How can you engage the public to support your lab's mission?

Engage potential partners and their resources across government and the public/private partnerships to support your lab. Other agency labs and the government Communities of Practice (CoPs) can provide valuable resources and partnerships. Private and philanthropic organizations or the research community can enhance existing resources and capacities for your lab using public-private partnerships and aligned commitments.

How will your agency's leadership support your lab?

Determine whether your agency's leaders have the political desire to risk establishing a lab. Assessing the political support is not a simple checklist of interagency agreement to launch a lab. Your lab is more likely to succeed over the long term if agency leaders support it. If they don't, your lab will fail.

How do innovators submit ideas to your lab?

Identify how your lab will get, generate, solve, and implement ideas from innovators. Labs may opt for an open-door policy when it comes to receiving ideas and involving employees in implementation; others may prefer to receive an application or proposal. Labs may also engage external stakeholders using prizes and/or challenges. In some cases, project proposals come from agency leadership; others depend on a bottom-up approach.

Where should the lab be located?

When creating your agency's innovation lab, consider the physical location as well as the agency's organization. The lab's location can create or diminish a collaborative culture. Consider the organizational hierarchy to gain the most benefit and support from agency leadership.

How should we market the lab within the agency?

Once your lab is established, consider how best to convey its presence and initiatives so it becomes an integral part of the agency.

  • Develop marketing and communication strategies for internal and external messaging campaigns, find lab-specific training opportunities for employees, and create advising councils that publicize the lab's successes.
  • Build employee interest in the lab through training opportunities, all-staff meetings, open houses, and new employee orientation.
  • Gather metrics and share your success stories to build your lab's credibility and ensure its continued growth.


Establishing innovation labs across the government will be critical to foster a culture of innovation. The White House National Economic Council and Office of Science and Technology Policy published A Strategy for American Innovation in October 2015. The policy asks agencies to develop a network of innovations labs capable of empowering and equipping agency employees and members of the public to implement their innovative ideas to more effectively serve the U.S. public.

On March 9, 2016, the White House Office of Budget and Management sent the Acquisition Innovation Labs & Pilot for Digital Acquisition Innovation Lab memorandum to Chief Acquisitions Officers, Senior Procurement Executives, and Chief Information Officers announcing the new initiative to accelerate establishing acquisition innovation labs across federal agencies.


Additional Resources

Tour of Duty Hiring

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"You can do this too. We are not special snowflakes; these are hiring authorities that are available to every agency in government."

  • Jennifer Anastasoff, Founding Member at U.S. Digital Service

Purpose and Outcomes

Purpose: Agencies have the authority to recruit and hire talented individuals on a temporary basis to help bolster strategic initiatives in their organization.

The quality of the people that federal agencies can recruit, hire, and retain has a decisive impact on public-sector performance. Recruiting outside talent is an important avenue for infusing innovative thinking and technologies into the federal workforce. Agencies should try harder to employ a diverse and talented workforce by actively recruiting individuals who can help build a more effective, efficient, and innovative government.

By leveraging temporary tour-of-duty employment opportunities (also known as details), federal agencies can tap into new talent willing to serve their country. Using flexible hiring authorities allows agencies to recruit executives, entrepreneurs, technologists, and other innovators willing to enter government service for a short period.


Use flexible hiring models to rapidly recruit top talent with specialized skills. Programs like the General Service Administration's Presidential Innovation Fellows and 18F, and the United States Digital Service (USDS) in the Executive Office of the President have successfully demonstrated the benefits of recruiting technical and design talent. These recruits significantly improve the delivery of digital services and experiment with new approaches to solve problems.

Agencies can gain similar benefits from using flexible hiring authorities to bring in domain experts in other critical areas besides digital technology, such as process improvement, data science and data-driven decision-making, financial innovation, human-centered design, open source, and agile approaches.

Agencies can quickly address critical skill gaps and further define their most pressing problems and stretch goals. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has an Entrepreneur-in-Residence programs to address some of the tough challenges the department faces.


Tour of duty is a temporary employment hiring process available under flexible hiring authorities. This approach allows agencies to meet critical hiring needs at a faster pace than the traditional federal hiring process.

Here are a few flexible hiring authorities that facilitate tour of duty hiring:

Understanding and properly using all available flexible hiring authorities can help each agency's human capital team meet agency hiring needs more efficiently. OPM offers more guidance on different hiring authorities and recruitment approaches.

An effective public service appeal directly asks prospective hires to use their tremendous skills to serve their country. Particularly with fellowship authority ( Schedule A sub-part R), talent can be hired under two-year appointments with the option of extending another two years. The tour of duty model can appeal to talent with technical expertise who might not have otherwise considered public service.

Actions and Considerations

Follow these steps to recruit private-sector talent:

Step 1: Assess the type of program that fits your agency's hiring needs:

There are five specific reasons why you'd bring in a tour of duty hire–determine which of these your agency needs:

  • Internship or fellowship programs provide developmental or professional experiences to individuals who have completed their formal education;
  • Training and associate programs increase the pool of qualified candidates in a particular occupational specialty;
  • Professional/industry exchange programs provide cross-fertilization between the agency and the private sector to foster mutual understanding and idea exchanges, or to bring experienced practitioners to the agency;
  • Residency programs help participants gain experience in a federal clinical environment
  • Assistance programs require a period of government service in exchange for educational, financial, or other assistance.

Consider using Human Resources University's Hiring Decision Tool to evaluate what you might need at your agency. The interactive questionnaire can help match potential hiring flexibilities with your agency's needs.

Step 2: Pitch your call to serve to private-sector talent

Recruit by using a call to serve. Effective appeals can include:

  • Focus on the mission and emphasize outcome-driven goals.
  • Highlight the amount of impact an individual can make through the position.
  • Point to specific examples of similarly skilled people who have already had widespread impact.

Step 3: Adopt private-sector best practices to actively recruit top talent

The U.S. Digital Service (USDS) process has six essential stages:

  1. Identify the most effective skillsets to address priorities. You'll need to do considerable internal work to understand and articulate the agency's talent gaps.
  2. Identify who would excel at these skills. Ideal candidates will most likely not be looking for a job. Find them using the tools like LinkedIn, industry blogs, and networks to identify ideal candidates.
  3. Use a network to discover and refer a diverse pool of candidates. Use a team approach to connect with experts from around the country and tap into the full range of potential talent.
  4. Build relationships with target individuals. Invest time and social media/web resources to identify ideal candidates, initiate contact, present the opportunity, and convey the operating conditions and possible impact.
  5. Communicate candidly, directly, and consistently via media and local recruiting events. Events like demo days and roundtables are key for persuading top talent to consider a public service tour of duty.
  6. Create a responsive and strong candidate experience during the application and onboarding process. Design internal processes to make it easy to apply and quickly process applications and potential hires. Communicate frequently with the potential applicants to set up interviews and check on the hiring and security clearance process.

Step 4: Build talent pipelines through demo days and roundtable events

Use demo days and roundtable engagements as two elements in an active recruitment process. For example, the USDS hosts demo days across the country where multiple agencies showcase completed projects to potential candidates. Their talent team host follow-up roundtable discussions of individual case studies with 10 to 12 potential candidates. Candidates are directly asked if they are interested in joining. If they are, they are invited to one-on-one meetings.

Step 5: Recruit for both technical expertise and cultural fit

Recruit for both technical skills and soft skills that will help private-sector talent adjust to the challenges of the public-sector workplace. Candidates must be able to empathize with public servants who may be risk-averse due to compliance and regulatory concerns. Other soft skills include active listening, respect for different viewpoints, honest communication, patience, and tolerance for bureaucracy.


  • Use flexible hiring authorities such as
  • Internship or fellowship programs
  • Training and associate programs
  • Professional/industry exchange programs
  • Residency programs
  • Assistance programs
  • Pitch to private-sector talent with a call to service
  • Adopt private-sector best practices for actively recruiting top talent into government
  • Recruit for both technical expertise and cultural fit
  • Build collaborations between innovators and career federal employees
  • Support innovators


Additional Resources

How to Get Connected

Better Government Playbook


Six key guiding principles or “plays” for public sector innovation

Better Government Stories

Case Studies

In-depth case studies of where innovation is happening and working in the government

Join the Better Government Movement


Opportunities to join the Community of Practice, Innovation Ambassadors, and upcoming events